Aipac’s annual hoopla conference began today with 4,500 delegates hearing speeches from the big shots like Ehud Olmert and John Bolton.
But behind all the festivities, the New York Times reports, stands a 900 pound gorilla of whom no one is speaking:
…The official program omits a topic likely to be a major theme of corridor chatter: the explosive Justice Department prosecution of two former officials of the group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that is ticking toward an April trial date.
The highly unusual indictment of the former officials, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, accuses them of receiving classified information about terrorism and Middle East strategy from a Defense Department analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, and passing it on to a journalist and an Israeli diplomat. Mr. Franklin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12½ years in prison, though his sentence could be reduced based on his cooperation in the case.
Rosen and Weissman’s lawyers are attempting to mount a First Amendment-based defense:
Some legal experts say the prosecution threatens political and press freedom, making a felony of the commerce in information and ideas that is Washington’s lifeblood. Federal prosecutors are using the Espionage Act for the first time against Americans who are not government officials, do not have a security clearance and, by all indications, are not a part of a foreign spy operation.
Of course, the defense and this entire passage omit one critical and salient aspect to this case. Larry Franklin didn’t just pass on government reports to Aipac’s staff. The staff in turn passed the information on to Naor Gilon, political director of the Israeli embassy (and possibly a Mossad operative?):
Former and current intelligence officials have said the two men may have stumbled into an American intelligence operation involving electronic monitoring of Israeli interests in the United States. The indictment includes what it indicates is a verbatim quotation from an April 1999 conversation Mr. Rosen had with an official of a foreign country, identified as Israel by government officials who have been briefed on the case.
So the Times article is dead-wrong in contending that Rosen and Weissman “are not part of a foreign spy operation.” The only possible comfort the two can take is that the feds allowed Gilon to leave the country without charging him. So they can argue that if the government believed this was an important espionage case, why didn’t it detain one of the key players?
Of course, the answer is that if the feds HAD detained an Israeli embassy employee there would have been hell to pay. Aipac would have had a conniption fit. American Jews would be in a tizzy and Israel would be as well. It would have roiled relations for months if not years. One assumes that our government believes it gains as much in national security matters from its relations with Israel as it lost in this spy scandal. Therefore, it didn’t want to go as far as it might have for fear of losing those benefits.
The article quotes Steve Aftergood, an anti-nuclear activist I’ve admired since we both worked for small non-profits in Los Angeles in the 1980s, as questioning the prosecution:
“If receiving and passing on national defense information is a crime, we’re going to have to build a lot more jails,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the liberal Federation of American Scientists. “To make a crime of the kind of conversations Rosen and Weissman had with Franklin over lunch would not be surprising in the People’s Republic of China. But it’s utterly foreign to the American political system.”
I understand that for Steve, in his line of work, contact with government officials that involves dissemination of information is vital. And I can also understand why he sees this case as a potential threat to the exchange of ideas between government and the public interest sector. But I’d implore Steve and others who question this case to remember that we’re talking about more than this. We’re talking about Aipac staff who are charged with passing this information on to a foreign nation. That should make all the difference. Do you want to allow Aipac to collude with Israel in order to secure U.S. government documents?